Christmas Is a Time for Acts of Generosity

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Carole Cusack, professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney.

To those who celebrate it, Christmas is as important as the history of Christianity itself. The religious and cultural celebration connects millions of people throughout the world who speak a variety of languages and come from different backgrounds but share the same religion and calendar. Christmas, however, has evolved throughout the years to become a worldwide fiesta that is both religious and secular, integrating a range of pre-Christian and pagan traditions into the festivities.

As the annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas is observed by most on December 25. It has become so popular that many non-Christians around the world mark it by exchanging gifts, putting up decorations and “inviting” Santa Claus to their parties.

There are few celebrations like Christmas in which gift-giving, enforcing familial bonds, generosity, charitable giving and social communion are encouraged. Many Christmas-related rituals in different countries have been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. One example is the men’s group Colindat, shared by the Republic of Moldova and Romania. Each year and prior to the advent of Christmas, groups of young men gather in villages across both countries, go from house to house, perform festive songs, and receive gifts and money from the hosts. The rite of Kolyady Tsars, which belongs to Belarus, is also an example.

Christmas has a strong presence in Western popular culture and literature. Such notable books as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot, A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling are either entirely about Christmas or have stories happening in a festive setting.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Professor Carole Cusack, an Australian historian of religion, about Christmas, its roots and traditions.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ Christ, celebrated by millions of people across the world. Where did Christmas originate from? Is there any indication as to the date of the first Christmas celebration and its form and shape?

Carole Cusack: December 25 is the date on which the world celebrates Christmas, the festival in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ, the savior of the Christian faith. Yet it is well-known that Jesus was not born on December 25, and that date, deep midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere, was a time of magic and celebration since at least the Neolithic era. This was because the Winter Solstice, usually falling between December 20 and 24, marked the shortest day of the year, and monuments like Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe in the Orkneys demonstrate that people watched carefully for the date, as after it passed the powers of darkness, chill and death were retreating and the power of sun, warmth and life gained momentum.

The tradition of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 started in the fourth century. The celebration of the birthday of Mithras, the sun god of the Persians whose mystery religion was popular among soldiers in the Roman army, was also celebrated on December 25. Mithras was often perceived as a rival to Jesus Christ, and Christians took advantage of the popularity of the 25th December date to celebrate the birth of their own influential religious figure on the same day.

Ziabari: Christmas was historically associated with revelry and drunkenness and it’s reported that Puritans banned it in the 17th century until being restored as a legal holiday in 1660. Are these accounts, attributing misbehavior and irresponsible drinking to Christmas, true?

Cusack: The northern European midwinter festivals included Yule, which celebrated the rebirth of the year as the sun returns after the solstice. The evergreen conifers that are still used as Christmas trees were green and palpable signs of life amidst the winter snows. The tradition of the Yule log, which burned on the night of the festival and smoldered for days afterwards, perhaps relates to the tree that upholds the world in Germanic and Scandinavian mythology, Yggdrasil, which is an ash tree. Feasting and drinking raised people’s spirits and assisted them to make it through the remaining two months of winter and look forward to spring.

In the Middle Ages Christians celebrated with special food and drink. The Puritans were against drinking, dancing, sport, theatrical productions, and most forms of human entertainment and enjoyment. They have inheritors today; the Presbyterians of the Scottish island of Lewis do not sing hymns or do anything on the Sabbath. It’s difficult if you are a visitor on the island even to find something to eat on Sunday. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays or Christmas, either.

Ziabari: There are many non-Christians who cherish Christmas today as well as millions of Christians who celebrate the festival. Does this mean that Christmas is not merely a religious occasion and has crossed the boundaries of ideology and faith?

Cusack: Christmas has become a cultural event, associated with the giving of gifts and lavish meals with friends and family. Many religions have festivals around that time. Chanukah, which means dedication in Hebrew, is an eight-day long “festival of lights,” in which each day is marked by the lighting of a candle in the menorah — multi-branched candlestick. The festival commemorates the victory of Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers over the Seleucids, and the reclamation of the Temple in Jerusalem for the worship of Yahweh. The Jewish calendar date at which it begins is the eve of Kislev 25, which generally falls in December. Special prayers and blessings are recited each day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddhist communities around the world hold Bodhi Day gatherings on December 8. This commemorates the enlightenment of the Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama. Vesak is the festival that celebrates his birth. Buddhists put fairy lights on Bodhi trees or ficus religiosa, and hang ornaments representing the Three Jewels of Buddhism — the Buddha, the Dharma or law, and the Sangha or monastic community. Rice and milk are eaten to recall the meal the Buddha ate after he abandoned strict asceticism.

Ziabari: What are some of the most notable Christmas traditions that continue to be observed today? Why are they important?

Cusack: The popularity of decorating a pine tree as part of Christmas also has its origins in non-Christian traditions from the northern parts of Europe where Yule was celebrated at the mid-winter solstice. The traditional Christmas tree is an evergreen, whose green branches defy the chill winter and point to the ultimate victory of the sun.

The idea of giving gifts may be traced to the Bible, in which the infant Jesus was presented with gold, frankincense and myrrh by the Three Wise Men, named in apocryphal texts as Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. This received a boost in the Middle Ages, when Boxing Day, December 26, became a holiday when masters gave their apprentices and other employees “boxes,” that is, gifts.

Ziabari: What do you think is the most important message that the celebration of Christmas sends?

Cusack: The message of Christmas now is largely about gathering with friends and family. The consumerist aspects are deeply integrated into the Western celebration, though Asian countries are generally less materialistic.

In South Korea, Christmas is a public holiday even though around 70% of the population is not Christian. There are many Christmas trees with twinkling lights, often with a red cross on the top, and lavish Christmas displays in shop windows are common. For many non-Christians, it is fashionable to attend a Christmas church service, and groups of people walk through neighborhoods singing Christmas carols. Christmas cake, though not European-style fruit cake but either sponge cake with cream or an ice-cream cake, is a popular seasonal indulgence. But Christmas present-buying and giving to everyone at the office or at school is not part of the Korean Christmas.

Ziabari: As you noted, family gatherings are pivotal to Christmas. How do you think Christmas bridges the gaps between the family members and goes to heal family wounds at a time that families have become vulnerable to conflict and tensions of the digital, industrial age?

Cusack: The television comedy series Seinfeld introduced the world to the tradition of Festivus in Season 9, which aired in December 1997. It is traditionally held on December 23 and has the slogan “A Festivus for the rest of us!” Based on the Seinfeld episode, the celebration has an aluminum pole which is undecorated, contrasting with the traditional Christmas tree, and at the dinner there is an “airing of grievances,” in which everyone complains, and also the “feats of strength,” in which the host must be pinned. Festivus has more loosely been adopted by those who are not religious as a festival for anyone who just likes getting together with friends or family at a ritual occasion.

Ziabari: Does the legacy of Christmas as a cultural celebration that connects many people with different backgrounds and belongings need protection? Is Christmas susceptible to oblivion?

Cusack: The only people who advance this type of argument are generally Christians who feel threatened by multi-culturalism. For those who believe multi-ethnic, multi-faith communities are more interesting and more open-minded, these sorts of ideas are not important. Christmas is a celebration in a civic sense as well as a religious sense, and in that civic space a large number of different communities can participate.

Ziabari: What do you think about the reflection of Christmas and customs associated with it in English literature? Why is Christmas so prominent and omnipresent in the work of writers such as Charles Dickens?

Cusack: Prior to the 20th century, the majority of Western people lived in poverty and the sadness of their exclusion from society created great and moving literature. Think of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson, a heartrending tale of a pious, orphaned child who dies in the snow on New Year’s Eve. She has visions of a Christmas tree and feast before a shooting star heralds her death and her grandmother comes to take her to heaven. In the 21st century, there is still terrible poverty, and Christmas represents a time when generous acts are possible as in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the four March girls, who are not well off, give up all their Christmas treats to a poverty-stricken family.

Ziabari: To the people of countries in which Christmas is not celebrated, Santa Claus and Christmas trees are the most significant representations of the festival. Where did they come from?

Cusack: The figure of Santa Claus, the jolly bringer of presents to good children, is derived from St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop in the Greek city of Myra, now in modern Turkey. Two famous stories are told of him that associate him with gifts and children. First, he rescued three girls from a life of prostitution by giving their father three bags of gold for their dowries. Second, he brought back to life three young boys who had been murdered and pickled by an evil inn-keeper.

Santa Claus has associations with the North Pole and elves and reindeer are his companions in general Western folklore. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, brings children presents on December 5, the day before the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6.

Ziabari: And any final thoughts?

Cusack: Here are a few other celebrations that happen at the same time as Christmas; one ancient, two modern.

Saturnalia was the Roman winter solstice festival, which was characterized by giving gifts, charity to the poor, the decoration of trees and special family dinners. The state canceled executions, war was never declared at this time, and the rich were expected to pay several months’ rent for the poor or perform other acts of generosity. It started outs as a festival in honor of Saturn to celebrate the planting of autumn and winter crops, and in the first century AD the date was fixed at December 25.

Two final modern December holidays are given in conclusion. The first is Zamenhof Day, a festival in honor of Ludwig Zamenhof, the inventor of the “universal language” Esperanto, celebrated on December 15, Zamenhof’s actual birthday. The second is Kwanzaa, an African-American festival established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. It is celebrated from December 26 to January 1, mostly in America, though it has spread to Canada.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Kourosh Ziabari

When a Machine Becomes an Artist

If a machine is programmed to create art on its own, who gets the credit?

When artificial intelligence has been used to create works of art, a human artist has always exerted a significant element of control over the creative process. But what if a machine were programmed to create art on its own, with little to no human involvement? What if it were the primary creative force in the process? And if it were to create something novel, engaging and moving, who should get credit for this work?

At Rutgers’ Art & AI Lab, we created AICAN, a program that could be thought of as a nearly autonomous artist that has learned existing styles and aesthetics and can generate innovate images of its own. People genuinely like AICAN’s work, and can’t distinguish it from that of human artists. Its pieces have been exhibited worldwide, and one even recently sold for $16,000 at an auction.

When designing the algorithm, we adhered to a theory proposed by psychologist Colin Martindale. He hypothesized that many artists will seek to make their works appealing by rejecting existing forms, subjects and styles that the public has become accustomed to. Artists seem to intuitively understand that they’re more likely to arouse viewers and capture their attention by doing something new. In other words, novelty reigns.

So when programming AICAN, we used an algorithm called the creative adversarial network, which compels AICAN to contend with two opposing forces. On one end, it tries to learn the aesthetics of existing works of art. On the other, it will be penalized if, when creating a work of its own, it too closely emulates an established style. At the same time, AICAN adheres to what Martindale calls the least effort principle, in which he argues that too much novelty will turn off viewers. This ensures that the art generated will be novel but won’t depart too much from what’s considered acceptable. Ideally, it will create something new that builds off what already exists.

Can Humans Tell the Difference?

As for our role, we don’t select specific images to “teach” AICAN a certain aesthetic or style, as many artists who create AI art will do. Instead, we’ve fed the algorithm 80,000 images that represent the Western art canon over the previous five centuries. It’s somewhat like an artist taking an art history survey course, with no particular focus on a style or genre. At the click of a button, the machine can create an image that can then be printed. The works will often surprise us in their range, sophistication and variation.

Using our prior work on quantifying creativity, AICAN can judge how creative its individual pieces are. Since it has also learned the titles used by artists and art historians in the past, the algorithm can even give names to the works it generates. It named one Orgy; it called another The Beach at Pourville. The algorithm favors generating more abstract works than figurative ones. Our research on how the machine is able to understand the evolution of art history could offer an explanation. Because it’s tasked with creating something new, AICAN is likely building off more recent trends in art history, like abstract art, which came into vogue in the 20th century.

There was still the question of how people would respond to AICAN’s work. To test this, we showed subjects AICAN images and works created by human artists that were showcased at Art Basel, an annual fair that features cutting-edge contemporary art. We asked the participants whether each was made by a machine or an artist. We found that humans couldn’t tell the difference: Seventy-five percent of the time, they thought the AICAN-generated images had been produced by a human artist. They didn’t simply have a tough time distinguishing between the two. They genuinely enjoyed the computer-generated art, using words like “having visual structure,” “inspiring” and “communicative” when describing AICAN’s work.

Beginning in October 2017, we started exhibiting AICAN’s work at venues in Frankfurt, Los Angles, New York City and San Francisco, with a different set of images for each show. At the exhibitions, we heard one question, time and again: Who’s the artist? As a scientist, I created the algorithm, but I have no control over what the machine will generate. The machine chooses the style, the subject, the composition, the colors and the texture. Yes, I set the framework, but the algorithm is fully at the helm when it comes to the elements and the principles of the art it generates.

For this reason, in all the exhibitions where the art was shown, I gave credit solely to the algorithm — AICAN — for each artwork. At Miami’s Art Basel this December, eight pieces, also credited to AICAN, will be shown. The first artwork that was offered for sale from the AICAN collection, which AICAN titled St. George Killing the Dragon, was sold for $16,000 at an auction in New York in November 2017. (Most of the proceeds went to fund research at Rutgers and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France.)

What the Computer Can’t Do

Still, there’s something missing in AICAN’s artistic process. The algorithm might create appealing images. But it lives in an isolated creative space that lacks social context. Human artists, on the other hand, are inspired by people, places and politics. They make art to tell stories and make sense of the world.

AICAN lacks any of that. It can, however, generate artwork that human curators can then ground in our society and connect to what’s happening around us. That’s just what we did with Alternative Facts: The Multi Faces of Untruth — a title we gave to a series of portraits generated by AICAN that struck us with its timely serendipity. Of course, just because machines can almost autonomously produce art, it doesn’t mean they will replace artists. It simply means that artists will have an additional creative tool at their disposal, one they could even collaborate with.

I often compare AI art to photography. When photography was first invented in the early 19th century, it wasn’t considered art — after all, a machine was doing much of the work. The tastemakers resisted, but eventually relented. A century later, photography became an established fine art genre. Today, photographs are exhibited in museums and auctioned off at astronomical prices.

I have no doubt that art produced by artificial intelligence will go down the same path.

*[This article was originally published by The Conversation.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Ahmed Elgammal

The Importance of the Latest Netflix Dystopia

1983 is an alternative history that bears disturbing resemblance to contemporary politics.

Popular culture is full of alternative histories. Mackinley Kantor wrote a famous article in Look magazine in 1960 about what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America imagines a world where Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 elections and ushers fascism into the United States. And The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon series based on the Philip K. Dick novel, depicts a terrifying scenario in which the Axis powers have won World War II.

These counter-histories tackle big historical events. The stakes are huge. As we read or watch these parallel universes, we shudder as we contemplate the precariousness of our current reality. A new Netflix series, 1983, inspires comparisons to these other counter-histories. But I fear that many people outside Poland might decide not to watch the series because the “what if” might seem parochial to them. It’s not just that the alternative history involves Poland rather than the United States or Russia or even Germany. It’s that even the “what if” here would be somewhat obscure for Poles themselves.

The show is called 1983, after all, not 1981. That’s the year when most people ask the big “what if” questions. What if the Soviet Union had invaded Poland that year to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement? What if Solidarity had improbably brought down the Communist government and replaced it with something more democratic nearly a decade before this actually happened in 1989?

Counter-History

But this new series focuses not on 1981 but on 1983, more than a year after the Polish government declared martial law, suppressed Solidarity and supposedly prevented the Soviet Union from intervening. In March 1983, according to the fictitious past of the new Netflix series, a number of explosions take place in major Polish cities. The Communist government blames the incidents on terrorists and uses them to justify a further consolidation of power. It does so also to keep the Russians at arm’s length, though in reality the risk of Soviet military intervention had effectively disappeared even before the Polish government declared martial law in December 1981.

Thus we have a very strange counter-history. In reality, although the Polish government remained concerned about Solidarity’s activities underground and the overall sympathies of the Polish population, it would lift martial law in July 1983. Meanwhile, March 1983 was no special month, no critical turning point. Which means that the new Netflix series is set in a relatively small country and takes place in a not particularly pivotal year. The stakes, it would seem, are very low indeed.

But it turns out that 1983 is not so much about what happened differently but about what didn’t happen. Because of these explosions in Poland in the parallel universe of 1983, the country doesn’t go through the transformations of 1989. The explosions give the Communist Party an opportunity not just to push the opposition underground, but to effectively eliminate it and continue to hold power into the 2000s. Indeed, the present day of the series is 2003, 20 years after the incidents.

The party, with the help of the secret police, the army and the regular police, is still well-entrenched. It has constructed a widespread surveillance regime. It distributes propaganda to a population isolated from the outside world. It delivers sufficient economic success to garner popular support while relying more on nationalism than communism to maintain its legitimacy. The underground opposition that has survived is meager. A new resistance movement called the Light Brigade attracts a younger generation, but it too is small in numbers.

The show toggles back and forth between 1983 and 2003. In the first episode, a young man, Kajtan, passes his oral exams in the spring of 2003 on his way to becoming a lawyer. Kajtan seems to be the golden child of the Communist elite. He’s even dating the daughter of the economics minister. He is also an orphan. His parents died in the 1983 bombings. That’s when he became imprinted on the public imagination when he appeared on the front page of the party newspaper as the boy with a lily at the funeral of his parents.

In the flashbacks, we see his parents in the months before the bombings, the father participating in the underground movement, the mother working at the sports ministry. The two plotlines seem to run in parallel but they actually converge, the first leading up to the bombings themselves in 1983, and the second gradually exposing the real cause of the attacks.

The World Outside

The world outside of Poland is full of big events, like the deployment of US troops in the Middle East in preparation for what seems like another war in Iraq under orders from an administration headed by Al Gore. But these world-historical events are marginal. The series focuses claustrophobically on Poland as if we, the viewers, are as isolated as the characters in the show. And that’s what makes 1983 so interesting. The show is concerned not with abstract what-ifs. It is instead suffused with the specifics of Polish culture and history.

Take, for instance, the depiction of the opposition movement. The show depicts clandestine meetings and heated discussions over the use of violence, just like the conditions during martial law. But there is one scene in particular that stands out. One of Kajtan’s old friends brings him to a performance in an underground passage in Warsaw’s Old Town. It is a single actor reciting from the poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Dziady. Many Poles will instantly recognize the reference to the banned performance of Dziady that precipitated the protests of 1968 that began in Warsaw.

Then there’s the role of the Vietnamese community. When I lived in Warsaw in 1989, I remember the small community of Vietnamese who’d come over as students or guest workers. They’d set up a few restaurants where you could get reasonably authentic noodle soup. There was one community in particular in Praga, across the river, and I even remember articles in the paper about Vietnamese gangs. A new wave of Vietnamese came to Poland in the 1990s as small-scale entrepreneurs, and they are now Poland’s largest non-European immigrant population.

But 1983 imagines a much larger role for the Vietnamese. The party has brought in large numbers of Vietnamese guest workers to handle sensitive tasks. There are Vietnamese students and Vietnamese oppositionists. The community seems to have monopolized the fast-food industry and is involved in the underground economy of drugs, prostitution and gun-running. Polish cops even have to pick up some Vietnamese words to get by.

It’s the many details of 1983 that give it so much authenticity even though it’s fake history. The series showcases the Stalinist architecture that’s still scattered around Warsaw, including the famous wedding cake Palace of Culture and Science in the very center of the city. But there’s also the Old Town and some of the new glass and steel structures as well. At one point, Kajtan is sitting on a bench eating a zapiekanka, the cheap French-bread pizza that was ubiquitous in 1989 but harder to find by the early 2000s when better options were available. In the alternative reality of 1983, the zapiekanka survives, just like the party.

Manipulation and Collaboration

But perhaps the most authentic part of 1983 is its preoccupation with those twin phenomena of modern Polish political life: manipulation and collaboration. It was a constant fear among those in the opposition that the authorities were constantly manipulating people and events. Perhaps they were provoking the opposition so that it would respond with violence. The other great fear was of collaborators. Poland’s secret police — Sluzba Biezpieczenstwo (the security service known as the SB) — was not as powerful or as influential as the East German Stasi. But there were still over 20,000 operatives who were managing, at their height, 84,000 informants. Many leading intellectuals and dissidents have been accused at one point or another of being informants, including former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

There were no terrorist attacks in Poland in 1983. But a few months earlier in September 1982, a strange incident took place in Switzerland. A group that called itself the Polish Revolutionary Home Army seized control of the Polish Embassy in the city of Bern and took several diplomats hostage. The militants called for an end to martial law, more than a million dollars and safe passage out of Switzerland. After 72 hours, Swiss police stormed the embassy, freed the hostages and captured the gunmen.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The head of the hostage-takers was Florian Kruszyk, who turned out to be a convicted Polish spy. In 1968, Austrian authorities arrested him after determining that he was a member of the Polish secret service. So was the whole incident cooked up by the Polish authorities to discredit the opposition and justify a crackdown on Solidarity underground? Possibly, and 1983 takes this scenario and runs with it.

Jennifer Wilson criticizes the series in The New Republic for depicting an imaginary Polish dystopia instead of challenging Poland’s current dystopian reality. But that’s not fair. For many Poles and those who listen carefully, there’s a substantial connection between the imagined future of 1983 and the current reality of Poland under the Law and Justice Party (PiS). This party, of course, is right wing, not Communist. But it espouses the kind of nationalism that Communist Party officials spout in 1983. And PiS favors the same kind of semi-isolationist politics.

Agnieszka Holland, the famous Polish director who was involved in the making of 1983, encourages such comparisons. “The Poland in the series is isolated – much more isolated than in the communist era,” she told The Guardian. “Outside influences are very rare, so the country develops its own version of modernity. Prosperity is limited, but people don’t know how it is outside so they feel safe and happy. They are manipulated by this propaganda, but they feel it is good for them. Of course, this is very close to what PiS would love to have in Poland.”

It’s not just Poland, she goes on. The support for right-wing populists and authoritarians in Russia, the United States, Turkey, the Philippines, India and Brazil suggests that many people around the world have little interest in freedom. For this reason, 1983’s exploration of the freedom vs. security dilemma goes beyond the Polish context of the series. It’s a show that’s well suited to the times we live in. It’s also a genuinely riveting show, with sharp dialogue, great acting and mesmerizing atmospherics. I hope that it cultivates an audience hitherto ignorant of Poland and its history.

*[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: John Feffer

The US Wants an “Honorable Withdrawal” from Afghanistan

As the US seeks an urgent withdrawal, there will not be durable peace in Afghanistan, nor a dignified exit for America.

John Bolton, the current US national security adviser, once wrote: “[Barack] Obama is pursuing ideological, not geopolitical, objectives.” If it was true about President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia back in 2011, it is also true about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy today.

Perhaps the confusion between geopolitics and ideology led to policy inconsistency in these regions. For example, look at the US narrative. In 1998, Pakistan was “the most dangerous country in the world.” In 2002, Iran and Iraq became members of George W. Bush’s axis of evil. In 2018, Mexico became the “number one most dangerous country in the world,” according to Trump. Which one should be taken seriously? When it comes to the war on terror, policy inconsistency is the core problem.

The 2001 strategic narrative of the war on terror was affected by a policy of regime change or “democratization” in Iraq in 2003. However, later down the line, counterinsurgency in Iraq undermined both narratives of the war on terror in Afghanistan and democratization in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq not only damaged the war on terror as a strategic narrative, but also provided the Taliban with an unprecedented opportunity to fully return to the battlefield. Moreover, Iraq War opened the opportunity for Pakistan to protect the Taliban’s bases and leadership on its soil and choreograph a new proxy war in Afghanistan.

The grave mistake was that US generals in Afghanistan, who had been dispatched from the Iraqi battlefield, saw the problem through a counterinsurgency lens, and all their policy assessments were focused on a counterinsurgency solution (also known as COIN strategy). As such, the strategic narrative changed from the war on terror to counterinsurgency, and the conflict began to be understood as an internal problem. Regional countries such as Pakistan no longer needed to be worried about the consequences of their support for terrorism. This fundamental shift in the strategic narrative of the intervention made it difficult for the US to win the war in Afghanistan.

Consequently, the US held secret talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar in 2011, where the Taliban pressed the Americans to accept their precondition for further talks. This outreach was a clear signal that the US believed it could not win the war militarily and was desperately looking for an “honorable exit” from Afghanistan, similar to the Soviets in 1989. More importantly, as this author has argued elsewhere, this encouraged regional countries such as Iran and Russia to strengthen their ties with the Taliban. 

Regional disagreements

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union did not lose the war in Afghanistan because of the strength of the mujahedeen, nor because the Soviets were militarily weak, but because of proxy support and a regional alliance against it. As result, Pakistan, the US, China and Arab states supported the mujahedeen as their proxies against the Soviets. However, in 2001, the US intervention was welcomed by the Afghan people and the international community. Both Russia and Iran supported the US at the Bonn conference in 2001.

But soon, President Bush added Iran to the axis of evil and followed up by attacking Iraq in 2003. The Trump administration has exacerbated regional uncertainty by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — or the Iran nuclear deal — and authorized even heavier sanctions against Tehran.

Moreover, tension between the US and Russia has since impacted Afghanistan’s security, and Russia has established its connection with the Taliban. The Kremlin even provided them with an international stage at the Moscow conference for Afghan peace on November 9, 2018.

As a result, US tension with Iran and Russian opened a new front of destabilization against Afghanistan without yet solving the problem with Pakistan. This is paving the way for Russia to make a comeback in the region. Yet many believe that Washington is still looking for an honorable exit from Afghanistan. In this situation, it would be hard to think about a dignified withdrawal. The reason is simple: There is no such thing as an honorable withdrawal without winning a war. To win the war, the military is not the only option, but rather a matter of consistency in policies.

The US has not lost the war, just the politics of it

Ideology and geopolitical confusion have led to fragmentation in Washington over its policy toward the region for years. According to American journalist Steve Coll, there was no consensus amongst those who worked on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India under the Obama administration. It seems that the main reason was the lack of balance between ideology and geopolitics, coupled with favoritism in different circles of policymakers. Perhaps one could think of a situation where some liked Afghanistan, while others disliked it without any concern for policy consistency. Such a situation existed within the US establishment.

In August 2017, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy to press Pakistan to cooperate in the peace process in Afghanistan. This proved unsuccessful to change Pakistani policy due to the Americans seeking an urgent peace deal and a hasty withdrawal. For years, the US has been paying Pakistan to buy its cooperation, but Islamabad has refused to cooperate to tackle the Taliban’s sanctuaries, except in one case that was handing over the Arab members of al-Qaeda to show it was assisting the US in the war on terror. Those al-Qaeda members were not beneficial for Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan and Kashmir.

It shows that in the past 17 years, the US policy in South Asia was rudderless, and Washington was confused as to how to deal with the conflicting situation and regional actors. It indicates a fundamental failure of the US to develop a coherent policy in South Asia. So, as Professor Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore puts it, “The war is on. The proxy war, that is.” In other words, Washington is not losing the war, but the politics of it.

Put America first and get out

Now, the US has pushed different parties in Afghanistan to prepare for peace talks with the Taliban. In doing so, this would perhaps include accepting conditions for Washington’s short-term gains, regardless of fundamental values such as human rights, women’s rights and social justice. The Americans are using the rhetoric of a US withdrawal as a Sword of Damocles against the anti-Taliban forces inside the country by insisting that the US is in a “hurry.” However, for countries such as Pakistan, it is a blessing to see the US withdrawal and defeat in the region.

As Bolton wrote in 2011, “The highest moral duty of a U.S. president … is protecting American lives, and casually sacrificing them to someone else’s interests is hardly justifiable.” He continues, “Terrorist and guerrilla tactics kill humanitarians just as dead as imperialists.” This is clearly a nationalist line of thinking: It doesn’t matter who kills whom — there is no moral base for judgment about politics and violence.

Once upon a time, this line of thinking prevailed in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. As a result, the country turned into a hub for international terrorists and exported atrocities on a global scale, including 9/11. However, once again, if American lives alone are at the heart of the US decision about peace and war in Afghanistan, there will not be a dignified withdrawal.

Today, there are more enemies in the region than at the end of the Cold War. The US has listed 21 terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region alone. Moreover, the increased influence of Russia and China makes Central and South Asia more unpredictable geopolitically. It is unknown who will define the future of the region, the battle against terrorism and the choice between democracy or totalitarianism. One thing is for sure, though: Afghanistan will still be the frontline for the US and Europe.

In the 1990s, the US leadership put America first, forgot about Afghanistan and ignored Islamic radicalism. The result was a civil war and a brutal regime under the Taliban with a safe haven for al-Qaeda. This ended in terror being brought to the US on September 11, 2001. In 2014, the US handed over the frontline of the global war on terror to a young and vulnerable Afghan national army without properly equipping and training its soldiers. As a result, the causalities increased and the security deteriorated dramatically. Therefore, with the urgency of withdrawing based on the US domestic situation, there will not be durable peace in Afghanistan, nor a dignified withdrawal for America.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Abbas Farasoo

Are US Sanctions Losing their Clout?

Washington’s frequent use of economic sanctions for all matter of offenses could end up diminishing their utility over the long term and empowering bad actors.

Washington’s latest round of sanctions on Iran’s primary hard currency earner will be felt not only by the Iranian government, but also by Iranians. Previous sanctions, imposed after Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, had already begun to take a bite out of Iran’s economy, costing the Islamic Republic an estimated loss of more than $2 billion in revenue. Undoubtedly, it has been a contributing factor in the recent spiral of the Iranian rial, down against the dollar by approximately 75% since 2017.

Tehran has been down this road before. US sanctions, much of which had been endorsed by the UN Security Council in the period leading up to the negotiation and signing of the JCPOA, had been so painful for Iran that it finally agreed to come to the negotiating table with the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US) and ultimately accepted restrictions on its nuclear weapons development program. The fact that Tehran has not reneged on the nuclear deal in spite of Washington’s withdrawal is testament to the devastating impact that global sanctions can have on its economy and its desire to forestall sanctions broader than those reimposed by Washington.

Nevertheless, US sanctions are impossible to ignore by Iran or any other country. Any country, bank or enterprise risks its US-based operations — not to mention access to America’s outsized market — in doing business with Iran or an Iranian entity falling under the sanctions. Despite the unwillingness of the other P5+1 countries to follow Washington’s lead, their businesses and banks cannot afford to risk secondary sanctions. They will comply by withdrawing their business with or in Iran, canceling contracts or shutting down financial dealings with Iranian banks.

Almighty Dollar

How does Washington get away with it? What makes the imposition of US sanctions so problematic for any country, entity or person on the receiving end of America’s financial wrath? The answer isn’t just the size of America’s economy — US GDP is nearly a quarter of global GDP. More often, it’s the “almighty” US dollar. In 2017, the dollar accounted for 85% of global trade based on the value of letters of credit issued, up from 81% two years earlier. The US currency is involved in nearly nine out of every 10 transactions in the daily $5.1-trillion foreign exchange market, according to 2016 data from the Bank for International Settlements. The greenback also accounts for 62% of global reserves. As Iran learned prior to 2015 and will now experience again, it’s nearly impossible to do business in the world today without recourse to the dollar.

And for Tehran, it’s getting worse. SWIFT — Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications — a Belgium-based messaging network that financial institutions use to securely transmit information and instructions worldwide, announced that it too is severing its relations with Iran’s banks. The move will effectively cut those banks off from the global financial system. Since the vast majority of SWIFT’s transactions are in dollars, it had no choice.

Iran isn’t alone in the bullseye of American sanctions. The US Treasury Department currently enforces 29 active sanctions programs, targeting countries like Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Syria, Libya and others, as well as various criminal organizations, individuals and businesses throughout the world, for an assortment of sanctionable violations of US human rights, drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, human trafficking, weapons sales, cyber warfare and other laws. Sanctions have become America’s go-to tool for extending territoriality of its laws, and the US economy and the dollar give it the ability to do it.

However, Washington faces increasing challenges in its resort to sanctions, not just as they apply to Iran, but also to US economic interests around the globe. First, Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was unpopular and opposed by nearly all of its allies, including the other members of the P5+1. To date, none have withdrawn, nor are they expected to do so. That means that there is little hope of achieving what the Obama administration had done — a UN Security Council resolution imposing global sanctions on Iran. So, as painful as US sanctions are likely to be for Iran, they are unlikely to approach the levels experienced in the period leading up to the signing of the JCPOA.

Washington now asserts that it expects Iran to comply with a 12-point list of demands, articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May. It’s not a bad list of Iran’s misbehavior both in the region and around the world. But it goes far beyond anything envisioned by the US and the other P5+1 members who, in 2015, focused on limiting Iran’s nuclear program. So, with fewer countries joining Washington’s sanctions, how is the Trump administration counting on the Iranians to give up more than they did in 2015? “More with less” once was a clever slogan in American politics, but it’s been proven unsuccessful. In this case, Iran is much more likely to weather these current sanctions, however painfully, than it was those imposed through 2015.

Second, Tehran has managed to accomplish a long-sought objective — drive a wedge between the US and its closest allies in Europe. In order to keep the US in the JCPOA, the European countries had showed considerable willingness to ratchet up non-nuclear sanctions on Iran and push for extending the deadlines in the nuclear agreement beyond their current 10-15 year deadlines before they came up for review. Yet the Trump administration bowed to its campaign promises and to its base — and withdrew. Trump had effectively gotten the bargain he wanted from the Europeans and instead went for the two birds in the bush and not the one he had in his hand.

Powerful Weapon

Now, the EU is seeking to set up a separate mechanism that would allow Iran and businesses and banks with which it deals, including oil customers, to work through a different financial clearing system. Known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, or SPV, it could have a much greater impact than the immediate goal of freeing Iran from Washington’s financial grip. Longer term, one could envision its use by China, Russia and other currently sanctioned states, entities and individuals to dodge US sanctions and work outside the US-led system. To be sure, setting up such a mechanism will be long and difficult, presenting all sorts of unforeseen challenges to global businesses, banks and governments. But in this age of instant financial transactions governed by algorithms and technology, the global economic and financial system has shown itself to be adaptable to the vicissitudes of international politics.

This raises the third risk to America’s use of sanctions when its allies are not on board. Such overuse and misuse will mean diminishing America’s and the world’s abilities to punish those who act outside acceptable bounds of international behavior. Causes such as protecting human rights, combatting terrorism and drug trafficking, and stemming proliferation, among others, will all suffer as violators turn to new means to avoid constraints and pursue efforts to destabilize and disrupt.

Finally, sanctions not adequately coordinated with other major economic powers, especially the EU, Japan and South Korea, can upset financial markets, currency trading and international trade. The global economy is better at adjusting when the sanctions are clear and enforceable, meaning other major nations act in concert with the US and not in opposition. Last summer, after the US imposed sanctions on Turkey, European bank stocks took a beating. Had the trade controls and sanctions been better coordinated with America’s European allies, the sell-off might have been mitigated.

Sanctions remain a powerful weapon in the US arsenal, one which it wields almost unilaterally among world powers. But their effect — to ensure global order by limiting the ability of bad actors to skirt international norms, and punishing them when they do — will be diluted if the Trump administration continues to pursue a go-it-alone approach. Their impact is exponentially greater when Washington convinces other economic powers to work with it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Gary Grappo

Saudi Unemployment Statistics Spell a Troubled Vision 2030

Most of the new employment that Vision 2030 is supposed to create needs to come from the private sector.

Two years and counting into the radical transformation of the Saudi economy known as Vision 2030, a key component of the strategy — to empower the private sector and significantly reduce unemployment — remains stalled. Figures recently released by the government show the unemployment rate remaining at 12.9%, a stubbornly high and alarming number given that roughly 60% of the population is under 30. Youth unemployment is running at 25%, and the so-called youth bulge continues to grow exponentially.

Most of the new employment that Vision 2030 is supposed to create needs to come from the private sector. The government has called for the creation of 1.2 million jobs by 2022. Yet the private sector, intended to be the source for those jobs, is struggling in a sluggish economic landscape. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the most likely place to find new jobs for young Saudis. And the government has aggressively pursued Saudization policies in, for example, the retail sector, but the plan has hit a major snag: Many young Saudis do not want to work for the wages that are on offer. Jobs in the government sector pay better and have much more attractive benefits. They are also less demanding.

Making a difficult situation worse, after decades of relying on foreign workers, a major push is on to drive down the number of foreigners working in the kingdom. The expat workforce has shrunk by 700,000 people since 2017 and continues to fall rapidly. That has had an adverse impact on consumer spending, particularly for SMEs that are being asked to create jobs for Saudis even as they see their income shrinking. At the same time, SMEs are being required to let go of the foreign workers who make up 80% of their workforce.

There are solutions available to address the problem, but none of them come without significant costs at a time when the government is striving to reduce its public spending deficit. One suggestion, examined by the International Monetary Fund, is to explore wage subsidies to private firms to bring salaries more in line with the public sector. Another approach would be to provide unemployment insurance, or — and this is the easiest but also the most expensive option — put young Saudis into government jobs.

Creating more jobs in government is a trap that previous Saudi economic plans have consistently fallen into. It also runs against the grain of Vision 2030, which sees a downsizing of the public sector as a core component of activating and energizing the private sector. But faced with high unemployment, jobs in the public sector may wind up being the default response, in part because another area where delivery is stalling is education. The government has talked a good deal about retooling the education system to make it fit for purpose, but it has yet to walk the talk.

There is an urgent need for vocational skills training and for a focus on scientific and technical skills. It has long been acknowledged that despite massive spending, the Saudi education system continues to produce very poor results by international standards. Both the quality of teaching and the curriculum fall below the bar necessary to provide young Saudis with the skill sets to deliver Vision 2030.

There is still time, and certainly there is the financial clout — the rise in oil prices has enabled the government to slash its deficit by more than 60% — to sort out the malaise that Vision 2030 is slipping into. But it requires more than just a reset of the wildly optimistic targets first trumpeted back in 2016. It needs thoughtful and pragmatic leadership and that would seem to be in short supply in Riyadh.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind Vision 2030, has shown a predilection for grandiose projects such as NEOM, the $500-billion city to be built in the north of the country and driven by artificial intelligence. He remains deeply entangled in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and many foreign investors are concerned about the lack of judgment he has shown in a number of situations from the war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar and the rounding up of senior businessmen and leading members of the ruling family in November of last year. A focus on domestic issues, especially job creation for young Saudis, lacks the sort of pizazz that the young crown prince craves, but it is precisely on how he handles such bread-and-butter issues that his legitimacy to lead the country rests.

*[This article was originally published by Gulf House.]

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Bill Law

Which Rules Does Mohammed bin Salman Follow?

In the new rules-based disorder, every leader has the power to define the rules they prefer. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

Since Donald Trump’s election and his performance as US president, many commentators, including members of Trump’s own team, have expressed regret about the weakening of what was traditionally and even officially called the “rules-based international order.” Trump has consistently shocked his allies with his refusal to recognize any rules other than those he imagines himself and articulates in the form of 3 am tweets.

This includes attributing blame to those who don’t respect his rules, as when he blamed poor forest management rather than climate change for the devastating fires in California and promised to withdraw federal funding. Then there was Trump’s behavior in France for the commemoration of the World War I Armistice. It illustrated to the Europeans that even the elementary rules of diplomatic protocol left him indifferent.

Following the end of World War II, nations wishing to play a constructive role in geopolitics were expected to acknowledge the rules-based order, even if they didn’t always respect every rule. When Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) promised to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy and transform the Arabian Desert into Silicon Valley East, everyone assumed that the crown prince understood the importance of at least paying lip service to the rules-based order.

The Khashoggi affair has demonstrated Mohammed bin Salman’s failure to understand what that order might be. Could it be that MBS plays a game with a different, competing set of rules? That is what The Guardian suggests when it informs us that “senior members of the House of Saud, including the crown prince, are partly blaming Turkey for the global revulsion, which they say could have been contained if Ankara had played by ‘regional rules.’”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Rules:

Instructions that guide not only the actions of the players of a game, but also determine the range of permitted reactions of the spectators 

Contextual note

The Saudis are upset because of the spectators’ “global revulsion” that followed their efficient act of elimination aimed at neutralizing a threat. All went well until Turkey cheated and broke the local rules. The Saudis complained that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “betrayed the Kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay ‘significant’ compensation.”

In other words, one regional “rule” appears to be that no crime exists that cannot be erased from the public record with cash. The rule also contains a specific guideline: the degree of the crime will determine the amount of the payment, which in the case of carefully organized premeditated murder falls into the category of “significant.” Within the framework of Saudi wealth, “significant” usually means billions of dollars.

Calling that payment “compensation” should strike most people as bizarre. Normally compensation is a response to accidents, unforeseen occurrences, “collateral damage,” not to an organized assassination of a public figure. A more appropriate term might be “hush money,” taken not from the Gulf region’s rulebook, but from the Sicilian mafia’s law of Omertà.

This scandal reveals something deeper. Mohammed bin Salman’s failure to understand the norms of international behavior stems from the fact that he is a pure product of his region. “Unlike many other high-ranking Saudi princes, he did not receive an education in the West,” we learn from Biography.com. Despite his proven talent at seducing intellectual luminaries from the West such as Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and Thomas Friedman, MBS sees the world through a despotic tribal sheikh’s lenses. The rules of that type of order were written long ago, as the clever Scheherazade understood back in the Islamic Golden Age.

Historical note

Encouraged by Trump and Kushner, MBS had reasons to believe the rules-based international order didn’t apply to him. The Guardian cites a regional source: “He’d seen Abu Ghraib, renditions, death penalties, and he felt comforted by Trump. He could not understand why this was happening to him.” Even Barack Obama assassinated American citizens to defend the national order, so why shouldn’t he?

The New Statesman succinctly described Trump’s project “to dismantle the multilateral, rules-based system that holds the world together, and instead reorganise the Americas and Europe as tributary economies to the US corporations.” Thanks to Trump’s example, ignoring the rules has increasingly become the modus operandi and the proudly displayed badge of glory of leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro (soon to take office). Flouting the rules wins elections because, with the right kind of manipulation and marketing, it is now possible to mobilize enough voters who seek reassurance in the idea of a decisive leader who dares to rise above the constraints of both institutions and the law.

The Khashoggi affair has, ironically, cast Erdogan into a role of moral leadership in the Middle East. Although he has never been a defender of Western style “freedoms” (of expression, of the press, of political assembly), his strategy is clear: “Ankara has been aiming to isolate Prince Mohammed through weeks of pointed rhetoric that has appealed to the Saudi King to rein in his son, and restore more conventional ways of doing business.” In other words, Erdogan — who is also at loggerheads with Donald Trump over sanctions — not only personifies the thirst for justice in the face of murder, but he appears as the defender of the threatened rules-based international order.

The question remains open: Can those who truly believe in a rules-based order defend it? To do so, they need to redefine what it is and how it works. It would be presumptuous to believe the Erdogan could lead that effort.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Peter Isackson

Taliban Attacks on Hazara Communities Raise Fear of Mass Atrocities

Afghanistan’s Hazara community is caught between attacks by Taliban and Islamic State militants, and neglect by the government.

It started with a Facebook post: “I can’t bear it anymore. I am going out. Will you join me?” Within an hour, by midnight local time on November 11, hundreds took to the streets and passed security barricades to march toward Afghanistan’s presidential Arg Palace. Desperate and angry, the protesters, including many women, demanded action against Taliban attacks on the Hazara communities in Ghazni and Uruzgan provinces. Tragically, the protest itself was brought to an end by a suicide attack claimed by ISIS that killed 6 and wounded 20 people near Kabul’s Pashtunistan Square.

More than two weeks of relentless attacks by the Taliban, first in Khas Uruzgan and later in Jaghori and Malistan districts on the southwestern edge of Afghanistan’s Hazarajat region, have left hundreds dead and wounded, and forced thousands to flee their homes. The exact number of casualties is not yet known, but at least 25 Afghan National Army (ANA) commandos and 15 civilians were killed in a single Taliban attack on Jaghori in the early hours of November 11.

In the past few weeks, in an obvious change of strategy, the Taliban has turned its attention on Hazarajat, Afghanistan’s safest region, which had hitherto been spared. Taliban fighters first attacked Hazara villages in Khas Uruzgan district, leaving many dead and wounded, and many more displaced to neighboring districts. Then they attacked Jaghori, followed by Malistan. Outmanned and outgunned, the local people’s cries for help have gone largely unheeded.

The Taliban has concentrated on the Hazara areas for different reasons. First, it wants to open a corridor to the north of the country to expand territorial control and supply lines. Second, Hazarajat has for years remained one of the most secure areas in the country, with high levels of access to education for girls and women’s participation in socio-political affairs, which the Taliban wants to put an end to. For years now the Taliban had surrounded the western parts of the Hazarajat, impacting security, but these direct attacks are different. Third, The Hazara areas do not have defensive forces, and the government doesn’t provide much security, making the areas vulnerable to the Taliban.

The attacks have increased humanitarian concerns in Hazarajat. The roads are blocked, and food and other basic materials are the main concern after security. The Taliban brought down communication systems, making the situation more difficult for the people and threatening the progress along democratic lines that started in the region in 2001.

“Ethnic Conflict”

After the initial attacks, the government in Kabul remained silent for days. When finally the office of President Ashraf Ghani responded to the incident in Khas Uruzgan, it described the Taliban attacks on the Hazaras as “ethnic conflict.” For the Hazaras, however, the president’s statement was as divisive as it was dangerous. Framing the conflict as an ethnic one creates hostility between the Hazaras and the Pashtuns in the region on the one hand, and reduces terrorist attacks to the scale of a local conflict on the other.

Facing a backlash, the statement was altered, with the contentious phrase removed the following day. Ghani also assembled a fact-finding delegation to visit Uruzgan, investigate and report its findings back to him. But the man appointed to head the delegation, Abdullah Fallah, a presidential adviser on local disputes, rebuked Ghani’s initial response, stating that what was happening in Uruzgan “was not an ethnic conflict” and that those who call it as such are “in fact helping the Taliban re-establish their Islamic Emirate.” The chief executive of the National Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, also rejected the president’s definition of the conflict in Uruzgan.

When the Taliban began its attack on Jaghori, catching the locals by surprise, the government remained oblivious and reluctant to act. After a day of silence, in response to mounting pressure from Hazara politicians and activists, an ANA commando unit was dispatched to the district. However, without further support from the government, the unit was exposed to a Taliban attack and lost 25 men during a single night, sparking a widespread perception of collapse of security in the region.

In recent years, the Taliban has expanded its influence in the northern parts of Afghanistan. Kunduz province fell several times to the Taliban, followed by an attack on Ghazni city in August this year. Both times, the government failed to prevent the assaults. This provides opportunity for the Taliban to challenge the government, winning a stronger position in peace negotiations. Despite Ghazni’s strategic location 70 miles south of the capital, President Ghani took his time to formulate a response. Government failures have raised questions about the decision-making and information sharing processes within the president’s inner circle.

This has raised concerns whether those around President Ghani, who is a Pashtun, understand the situation beyond ethnic presumptions. Afghanistan has a highly centralized system, which means the president is the one making the big decisions. Under Ghani, the system has become more centralized and exclusive, with one-man leadership on show. Particularly, security organizations like the Ministry of Defence, the National Security Council and the National Directorate of Security are under Ghani’s core circle’s tribal control.

In the past, some of President Ghani’s close aides have been revealed to hold a discriminatory attitude toward other ethnic communities. In September 2017, a leaked memo from the president’s office set off a storm of accusation of systematic ethnic favoritism. The memo insisted that “Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us, should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented here.” In November, another memo was leaked, “sparking an uproar and provoking new accusations of systemic ethnic favouritism” in the Ghani administration.

Dismissed and Neglected

In addition, the president’s inner circle tends to be dismissive of reports by local journalists, and whenever local media reflect on issues the government doesn’t like, it is dismissed as foreign propaganda. However, they are responsive to media reports in English, particularly by American media, as they value how their image is presented in the West. Therefore, the Afghan media reporting on the Taliban’s attacks in Uruzgan and Ghazni are not considered credible. That is why the president decided to send a delegation to Uruzgan to find out the facts.

Government inefficiency, negligence and a crisis of leadership provided an unprecedented opportunity for the Taliban to expand its control. It has intensified its attacks to strengthen its position in the peace talks. However, the government is reluctant to fight for and protect its people. Moreover, Kabul failed to create a regional consensus against the Taliban. For example, the latest round of talks in Moscow, which took place on November 9, will not help the peace process in Afghanistan; it is instead a display of Russian regional influence and adept diplomacy. On the other hand, the talks legitimize the Taliban vis-à-vis the American and Afghan forces, which will only help the group continue to perpetrate violence across the country.

Aside of the wider international dimensions of the war in Afghanistan, a lack of leadership and capacity at the strategic level in the government has worsened the situation. Given the history of Taliban atrocities against the Hazaras, recent attacks have provoked unease across the region. Despite the terrible fear of further terrorist attacks against their community, as the last resort, the Hazara people came out to the streets to protest against the government negligence in the middle of a night, only to have their biggest fear confirmed in the most violent of ways.

*[Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that thousands participated in the Kabul protests, while it was hundreds.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Abbas Farasoo

Welcome to the Ultimate Escape Room

For some, the slowness with which the international community is addressing climate change is yet more proof that humans have outlived their evolutionary usefulness.

The midterm elections are over and the Democrats have regained the House, but the rest of American political reality remains intact. Meanwhile, the campaigns barely touched on the most important issues of our time: war, climate change and the fracturing of the international community. So, let’s consider these larger issues from a different angle.

Let’s step from the voting booth into a different space altogether: an escape room. This is, however, no ordinary escape room like the ones that have become so popular in cities around the world. Here, the stakes couldn’t be higher: life or death. You might want to give it a pass, but you don’t have a choice. There’s only one door and you have to go inside…

The Escape Room

You’ve done enough escape rooms to know the drill by now. You are escorted into what seems like an ordinary room. There’s a table and a chair. On the table is a book. As soon as you step across the threshold, the door closes behind you. You hear the lock click into place.

You are now trapped in a room with four strangers. Three of them look as concerned as you are. The fourth is nonchalant.

The instructions this time are a little different. As with other escape rooms, you have a certain amount of time to figure out how to get out. Also, you know that clues to the puzzle are hidden somewhere in the room. Figure them out and you’ll be able to unlock the door.

But here’s the difference: the temperature in this room will go up a degree with every minute that passes. If you and those four strangers can’t figure out how to stop it from rising, you’ll succumb to heat stroke. In other words, if you don’t escape in the allotted time period, you’ll die.

You immediately set to work looking for the clues. Maybe one or two are in the book on the table or maybe a code is carved on the underside of the table. Maybe you need to use the chair to climb up close enough to scrutinize the crown molding near the ceiling. Three of the strangers are doing what you’re doing: trying to uncover clues.

The fourth is leaning against the wall, looking relaxed. “It’s just a joke,” he says to no one in particular.

“I already feel it getting warmer in here,” you respond.

“It’s just your imagination,” he replies. “Power of suggestion. Fake news.”

The clock is already ticking. It can’t be your imagination. It’s definitely hotter in the room than when you first entered. You’re sweating. Everyone’s sweating, even the leaning man. “Temperatures naturally fluctuate,” he comments. “It might be going up now, but it will go down again. Count on it.”

“Don’t listen to him,” says the teenager in your group. “He’s just a jerk.”

She’s right and there’s no time to try to persuade him either. The four of you are now uncovering one clue after another, which brings you to the truly challenging part: cracking the code. Each of you contributes something: the teenager quickly solves a quadratic equation, the stay-at-home mom translates that Japanese phrase, and the aging literature professor recognizes the quote from Dante’s Inferno.

And once the four of you use this code to open a panel you’ve discovered beneath a loose floorboard, you finally get the chance to apply your engineering knowhow to the situation. You personally figure out how to reset the thermostat hidden inside it and so manage to slow the rise in temperature. It’s not much perhaps, but it’s a start.

You’re working smoothly together now. Only through cooperation have you been able to get this far. Problem is, it’s still too warm in the room. The 70-something professor is now crumpled in the corner, breathing heavily. You only have one bottle of water to share and a couple of nutrition bars and there are still more puzzles to solve. The teenager is urging you on — and little wonder, she has her whole life ahead of her.

But here’s the catch. You’re getting tired, all of you. This Hot Room is only the latest and greatest challenge you’ve faced. You’ve been doing escape rooms now for what seems like decades, each challenge evidently more urgent than the last.

You were relatively young when you first stumbled into this craze. In the War Room, you were trapped with two heavily armed men pointing high-powered weapons at each other. In the Pandemic Room, you were all infected with a deadly virus and had to find an antidote. Most recently, you were locked in the Autocrat Room with a raving narcissist who believed he was the king of the world and who had his finger on a very real button that could destroy you, him, and everyone else.

Yet somehow you managed to extricate yourself from each of those rooms — only to find yourself trapped in this one. You should be tired! You can’t even believe it: Only now is the reality of it all beginning to dawn on you — that you’ve been proceeding through a series of nested escape rooms, boxes within boxes, that have led you here, to the ultimate box.

In this Hot Room, time is running out, resources are scarce, and you have to listen to an idiot leaning against a wall doing nothing, and acting as if this were a delightful sauna, not a potential coffin.

You suspect that this is the human condition, this endless succession of crises. Civilizations have risen and fallen throughout history. One culture after another has failed to figure out the riddle inscribed in its environment. Some didn’t even realize that they were on the verge of collapse until it was too late.

But this is different. Each previous time, it was just one part of the globe — the Mycenaeans, the Khmer, the Mayans, the Romans — that grappled with its communal fate.

Now, you’re addressing the fate of the planet. This Hot Room, you’ve come to realize, is Earth itself. And there’s nothing on the other side of the door except the cold, cold void.

To solve the riddle of this ultimate escape room means performing a genuine miracle. You have to stop the temperature from rising. You have to multiply the water bottles and the nutrition bars. Most challenging of all perhaps, you have to prevent everyone from giving in to despair.

So, you take time out to do what you’ve always done in such situations. You did it at work to rally your discouraged colleagues. You did it for your children at bedtime to dispel the nightly terrors. You tell a story. 

A Matryoshka of Dystopias

My novel, Splinterlands, was an exploration of one particular dystopian path: the nationalist fragmentation of the world into ever-smaller splinters. This was no far-fetched fantasy when I wrote it, just an extrapolation, circa early 2016, from ongoing trends: tensions within the European Union, the polarization of politics in the United States, the rise of far-right parties, the widening global gap between the rich and the poor.

Unfortunately, those trends only intensified after I finished the manuscript. It hadn’t actually been my intention to predict. Like any politically engaged dystopian novel, Splinterlands was meant to be a warning. I knew things could get that bad. I just didn’t think they would — not so quickly anyway.

Even before the book came out, Britain had voted to leave the European Union and then, more improbably yet, Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential election. Instead of being weird exceptions, the Trump-Brexit developments turned out to be part of a terrifying trajectory. Since then, the far right has assumed positions of power in Austria, Italy and now Brazil. It has done well in elections in Germany and Sweden. In France, the extremist National Front is now, according to pollsters, the country’s most popular party.

Get on a train today in Poland, heading for North Korea, and you’ll pass through an enormous swath of territory ruled by fake democrats and authentic autocrats. An illiberal axis connects this great expanse of Eurasia to Turkey, Israel, India, the Philippines, Colombia and Nicaragua. The military or one-party governments hold sway over much of Southeast Asia. Religious zealots and strong-arm leaders rule the greater part of the Middle East. Democracy is weak in most African countries and non-existent in others.

Together, these illiberal forces are deeply suspicious of any transnational authority that demands they adhere to global human rights norms and international standards.

The international community, never a particularly robust entity, is beginning to evaporate. Countries are withdrawing from international agreements like the Global Pact for Migration and organizations like the International Criminal Court. With its high-profile exits, Donald Trump’s America has done its best to undermine the Paris accord on climate change and the UN Human Rights Council. It’s not quite a rush to the exits, nor is this retreat into sovereign parochialism irreversible — not yet anyway. But the Splinterlands scenario of the total collapse of the international order and the fragmentation of countries like the United States and China has become incrementally more likely.

Meanwhile, global inequality continues to worsen. According to Oxfam, “82% of the wealth created last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity got nothing.” Facilitated by financial deregulation, corruption has become rampant, registering as a serious problem in two-thirds of the world’s countries, according to the latest Transparency International report. The media are under attack even in traditionally liberal countries like the United States.

And surveillance by the state and corporate conglomerates like Facebook has become commonplace. In China, the two forces are working hand in hand under the auspices of the phone app WeChat. Chinese use the application to shop, listen to music and exchange messages. But the app also assigns users a score based on everything from online behavior to how they drive their cars, and if that score is too low, they’re locked out of certain jobs, travel opportunities and schools. The system should be fully operational and exportable in a couple of years.

These various real-world dystopian scenarios are not discrete. They are indeed nested in one another, like one of those Russian matryoshka dolls that open only to reveal smaller versions of itself, each inside the next. Just as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” think of the current reality as never-ending wars wrapped in nuclear proliferation inside nationalist fragmentation enclosed in climate change.

This last challenge is, of course, the most urgent, transcending politics as it does. Governments of every political flavor have contributed to it and continue to dither in the face of an obviously looming catastrophe, while economic greed prevents any sustainable solution. In other words, we’re heading for a true existential reckoning. Heat up the planet enough and there won’t be any more politics or economics. It will be the real end of history, not the triumphalist one that Francis Fukuyama thought up in 1989 in anticipation of the end of the Cold War.

In Splinterlands, I still saw climate change as one part of an overall ecosystem of threat. In my new dystopian novel, Frostlands, climate change takes center stage. A stand-alone sequel set in 2051, the moment when Splinterlands ended, it focuses on Rachel Leopold, an aging climatologist, living in Arcadia, a sustainable community in what was once part of Vermont. Arcadia is now under attack by unknown forces and Rachel is worried that those attacks are directed at her. She’s been conducting experiments in secret to regenerate the Arctic ice cap in a desperate bid to enclose the remaining methane gas trapped in the permafrost. But (as in our world today) not everyone shares her urgent desire to stop climate change.

As with Splinterlands, the dystopia of Frostlands is, in fact, unspooling in real life on an accelerated basis. As environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a recent New Yorker: “Arctic soils contain hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, in the form of frozen and only partially decomposed plants. As the region heats up, much of this carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere, where it will trap more heat … In the Arctic Ocean, vast stores of methane lie buried under frozen sediments. If these stores, too, are released, the resulting warming is likely to be catastrophic.”

Kolbert then quotes Peter Wadhams, an ice specialist: “The risk of an Arctic seabed methane pulse is one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race.”

Why wait until 2051 when you can experience apocalypse now?

Evolutionary Dead-End?

A climatologist, a nuclear physicist and an epidemiologist walk into a bar. The bartender gestures to the three tiers of bottles arrayed behind her. “Pick your poison.” The three professionals laugh ruefully. The climate scientist links arms with her two colleagues and says, “Why don’t you pick your poison?”

It’s no joke. In a culture that emphasizes free choice — among political candidates, breakfast cereals, and Internet avatars — we now face the ultimate choice. We can choose our dystopian future. We can cut funding for medical research and emergency response and increase our vulnerability to the next plague. We can elect leaders who have itchy nuclear fingers and increase the likelihood that we go out with a bang. Or, if we somehow make it out of those particular escape rooms, we can drink the ultimate poison and heat up the planet until it can no longer sustain anything but cockroaches.

For some, the inexcusable slowness with which the international community is addressing climate change — along with the other apocalyptic scenarios — is yet more proof that humans, like dinosaurs, have outlived their evolutionary usefulness. It’s hard not to feel that all of humanity deserves a Darwin award when you see the effects of recent superstorms, the vanishing of polar ice, the heedless drilling for oil and gas everywhere, and the dilatory efforts of even sensibly led countries like South Korea to reduce their carbon footprint.

Dinosaurs, of course, couldn’t put up much of a fight against the asteroid that slammed into Earth 66 million years ago and the cataclysms that followed. You, however, can still tell the bartender, “Thanks, but no thanks, on the poison tonight.” You can still solve the riddle of the Hot Room and hope that the next challenge won’t be quite as apocalyptic.

Remember: there’s always going to be some guy leaning against the wall, making light of your efforts to save the world. It’s maddening to have to listen to him. So, like Odysseus, you must close your ears to the siren songs of what passes for pragmatism today. The politics of the possible don’t stand much chance in an impossible situation.

In that Hot Room, everyone but the skeptic is back to work, even the aging professor. Your story has inspired them to attempt the impossible: to work together, to solve the riddle, to overcome the resistance. They know the odds. They understand that they’re already living in a dystopia.

But now you’ve given them reason to believe that even dystopias can have sequels.

*[This article was originally published by TomDispatch. John Feffer’s latest dystopian novel, Frostlands, is available here.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: John Feffer

Actor Viggo Mortensen Uses a Word He Shouldn’t Use

What happens when concern about racism is focused on policing the words that antiracist people use, rather than the acts of actual racists?

Americans have a serious and complex problem with the notion of free speech. While everyone accepts the dogma that freedom of expression is an absolute right enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, more and more Americans appear to find some types of speech illicit, if not downright reprehensible. One approach to condemning other people’s speech — the one preferred by Donald Trump’s White House — consists of crying, “fake news.” Another, which most people associate with liberals, is political correctness (PC), which, in the minds of its practitioners, functions like a secondary legal system.

Though considerable overlap exists, most cultures make a clear distinction between speech and action. When talking about other people’s actions (not our own), we tend to speak of “behavior,” which though officially neutral always seems to carry a negative connotation. We tend to make a dubious distinction: we do something, we “act” while others “behave” (i.e., badly, incorrectly, poorly, inappropriately).

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary has already defined the word “behavior” as it was used in a specific context, by the US government accusing the Iranian government of “malign behavior” We come back to the same word today to analyze how it plays out in everyday US culture, and more particularly in PC culture.

The respected and accomplished actor Viggo Mortensen has provided the latest example of bad behavior in the eyes of his judges. While explaining the racist historical background of his most recent film situated in the South in 1962, he actually used an anagram of “ginger,” aka the n-word, in a sentence.

A right-thinking PC adjudicator, the largely unknown freelance director Dick Schultz — possibly seeking his first 15 minutes of fame — complained to The Hollywood Reporter about this violation of decency and is quoted by The Guardian as adding: “I have no idea why this isn’t a big news story. Viggo is wildly talented but that kind of behavior needs to be publicly checked.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Behavior:

1. As used by scientists: comportment, the way individuals act in specific situations

2. As used by ordinary people: Action by another person that reveals a fault in that person’s character

Contextual note 

As always with PC, Mortensen accepted to apologize. Deconstructing his full apology tells us a lot about US culture. Here is how it reads: “Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”

The first thing to notice is that if Mortensen was unambiguously speaking “strongly against racism,” his accusers consider that the speaker’s intentions, however obvious, are irrelevant. Mortensen states that he has “no right to even imagine the hurt … caused.” In other words, PC functions as the ultimate American “bill of rights,” defining not only what one can express, but what one can imagine. Dare we call this an attempt at mind control?

Mortensen adds a proviso: “especially from a white man.” We should thus understand that in a racist society, where white privilege continues to do untold damage to black lives on every level (economic, academic, law enforcement), the PC strictures applied to the n-word allow the white community to think that, if they refrain from pronouncing the “full word” (i.e., more than the first letter), they are not racist.

Historical note

Despite the US Supreme Court deciding in the case of Shelby v. Holder that racism was no longer a serious issue in the US electoral system, a glance at the news demonstrates that racism is not only alive and well, it is still the defining, existential issue at the core of US culture. The issue of voter suppression targeting minorities in the recent midterm elections testifies to the persistence of institutional racism.

The weapons people used to combat racism in the 20th century were protests and sometimes riots, followed by the laws we associate with the heroic days of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. Those laws included restrictions on states’ manipulation of voting rights (now permitted) and affirmative action, which racist politicians and pundits have successfully branded “reverse racism” to perpetuate at least some of the traditional economic advantages reserved for the white majority.

In other words, racists have succeeded in undermining the law of the land as well as the spirit of that law by convincing those who officially oppose racism (some of whom may be racists themselves) that shaming people who pronounce a word with a history we should all know about constitutes an effective defense against the prevailing racism. Hypocrites always prefer repression to the hard work of resolution.

Anyone who feels reassured by Mortensen’s forced confession should spend the next few days reading up about the Spanish Inquisition and Joseph Stalin’s show trials. They should also think about whether racism has anything to do with vocabulary, a mere symptom, but not the disease. Mortensen is absolutely not a racist, but the word he used has branded him with a scarlet W. And like Hester Prynne, and her scarlet letter, he has accepted it. However, one thing his speech was not is… behavior!

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Peter Isackson